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Advocacy groups, patients call for reforms to address medical debt

Cars drive under the sky bridge that connects the parking garage to the Upstate Medical University Hospital in downtown Syracuse.
Upstate Medical University
Upstate Medical University
Upstate Medical University Hospital in Syracuse.

Onondaga County has some of the highest rates of medical debt collections in the state, and a grassroots group is calling for reforms. Citizen Action of New York is hosting a forum Tuesday evening, along with other advocacy groups, elected officials, and patients who have been sued by hospitals. Citizen Action’s statewide health care lead Ursula Rozum says they discovered the growing problem using data collected during COVID.

“What we found was that was person after person saying they were getting sued by hospitals," Rozum said. "And so really what struck the alarm bell was the numbers of high rates of hospital lawsuits.”

Rozum says 80,000 mostly low-income New Yorkers were sued by non-profit and state-run hospitals since 2015. Among them is SUNY Upstate, which has sued more than 4,000 patients alone since 2020. Rozum says the data show communities of color are the most impacted, with 26 percent facing medical debt collections. She says many patients sued by hospitals qualified for financial assistance.

“Hospitals were actually not following the hospital financial assistance law," Rozum said. "And when we talk to patients, which is what I do in my work, we hear time and time again that patients were either not offered financial assistance or that the financial assistance application is extremely demanding, and it's just so difficult to apply.”

Rozum says even those with insurance coverage can suddenly face a flood of bills.

“Patients after a hospitalization or after a catastrophic situation just can't afford their hospital bills," Rozum said. "If you're seeing multiple specialists a day during your hospital stay, it's covered. But there's a co-pay. So the co-pays and out of pocket costs really add up.”

Rozum says they have succeeded in passing laws that prohibit hospitals from garnishing patient wages, putting liens on their homes, and removing medical debt from credit reports. Now she hopes elected officials and patients will call for reforms of the hospital financial assistance law and a permanent ban on lawsuits against patients.

The forum will be held Tuesday evening from 5:30 to 7:00 pm at Beauchamp Branch Library, 2111 S. Salina St. in Syracuse.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at